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Church social action ministry faces credibility crisis


The 500-plus social ministry workers who descended on Washington Feb. 9-12 came to advocate for programs under budgetary assault and to voice opposition to a war many see as inevitable. But first, they had to deal with the elephant in the middle of the hotel ballroom: the clerical sexual abuse scandal.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, set the tone at the opening liturgy: “Some may see the voice of bishops as perhaps diminished or compromised, but our voice and the voice of the entire Catholic community is needed more than ever.”

“We all hear rumors,” said former Kentucky Catholic Conference director Jane Chiles. “I hear that our traditional partners and coalitions that we have advocated with for decades may be suggesting that we stay home -- that our presence may have a spoiling effect upon the work to be done,” said Chiles, a member of the review board established by the bishops to deal with scandals.

The social ministers see themselves, with considerable cause, as the good guys. Through advocacy in state capitols and city councils or direct service in soup kitchens and homeless shelters they translate Catholic social teaching into action. Still, like every institution that bears the name “Catholic,” they are tainted.

The meeting, therefore, was part strategy session -- how best to make their case to the members of Congress -- and part pep rally, an effort to bolster the spirits of frontline troops demoralized by a year of unrelenting scandal.

How demoralized?

Over the past year Dan Misleh gave serious thought, he said, to “turning my back on this work.” The Sunday night realizations that he was “not looking forward to going to work on Monday” took their toll on the director of diocesan relations at the U.S. bishops’ Office of Social Development and World Peace.

The Cleveland diocese, meanwhile, was rocked by the April 2002 suicide of Fr. Don Rooney, a 48-year-old priest accused of sexual abuse. Cleveland resident Mark Falbo of John Carroll University’s Center for Community Service said, “We have to come to terms with [the sexual abuse scandals] or it becomes an easy way to disclaim us.”

Ralph McCloud, diocesan director of African-American ministry in Fort Worth, Texas, agreed the scandals “have been a huge distraction.” That distraction is compounded by the “huge misunderstanding of Catholicism” that exists in the Bible belt,” said McCloud.

From the podium, speakers hit the issue head-on.

“While we are ashamed, disappointed, and in some ways just flat out embarrassed by the revelations of the abuse and … the cover-up in the church, we must not lose hope,” said Chiles.

“We have to fix this as an institution, not just to repair the damage, but to get back to mission,” said John Carr, secretary of the USCCB’s Office of Social Development and World Peace. “The church exists to preach the gospel, to serve the least of these, to stand up for human life, and unless we get this fixed we won’t be credible or effective or seriously engaged … in pursuing that mission,” said Carr.

Chiles said the church is taking the steps necessary to regain trust. Moreover, she said, the hierarchy -- with “rare exceptions” -- is “committed to systemic change.”

She continued: “Regaining our moral authority is not about finding the right words to move us forward, nor is about creating a strategy that will place us out front on some issue. It is about staying the course, it is about ministering more effectively, it is about witnessing the message of the gospel, it is about bringing about far-reaching structural change that will create a safe environment for children and youth and create a system of transparency that will spare us from a return to this nightmare.”

The people who work to promote the church’s vision of justice, Carr told the group, are an essential part of the solution. “One of the worst consequences of this scandal would be if we were to lose our voice, compromise our values, or withdraw into a defensive shell. The way forward is both greater protection and accountability and greater commitment to our social mission and message.”

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 2003